Poor oral health, an untreated cavity, gum disease, or even common dental procedures can lead to a tooth infection, also called a dental abscess.
While tooth infections are painful, they typically respond well to treatment by a medical professional.
In many cases, dentists prescribe antibiotics for tooth infections, though other treatments may be necessary if the infection is severe.
In rarer cases—usually when the abscess is left untreated—a tooth infection can spread.
Dental infections often spread locally. However, if the abscessed tooth isn’t treated, the infection can continue to spread to other areas of your body and potentially cause sepsis, a life-threatening medical condition.
That’s why it’s so important to seek medical care right away if you think you may have a tooth infection.
In this article, I’ll cover the symptoms of tooth infections, and whether they can spread to other parts of your body.
I’ll outline how long a tooth abscess can go untreated, and symptoms that indicate it’s spread.
Finally, I’ll help determine when it’s time to contact a doctor, and explain some of the treatment options for a tooth infection that’s spreading.
Symptoms of a Tooth Infection
A tooth infection, also known as a dental abscess, happens when bacteria enters and infects the area surrounding a tooth.
Dental infections usually occur at the tip of a tooth’s root or on the gums on the side of the root (this is called a periodontal infection).
A tooth infection can cause symptoms such as:
- Severe toothache that may also cause throbbing pain in the jaw, neck, or ear
- Sensitivity to heat or cold temperatures
- Difficulty chewing or biting
- Swelling in the mouth or face
- Swelling in lymph nodes around the jaw
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
A ruptured abscess can cause a rush of foul-tasting or salty fluid inside the mouth.
Typically, when this pocket of pus ruptures, people also experience pain relief.
Can a Tooth Infection Spread to The Body?
Any bacterial infection, if left untreated, can spread to the body. At first, a tooth infection may spread locally, to other parts of the mouth, face, and surrounding areas. Most commonly, a tooth infection may result in:
- Osteomyelitis: An infection of the bone that surrounds the infected tooth
- Cellulitis: An infection of the skin and the fat beneath the skin
- Cavernous sinus thrombosis: A rare blood clot and infection of the blood vessels of the sinuses
- Parapharyngeal abscess: An abscess in the back of the mouth
Over time, if an infection continues to spread to other areas of the body, a person can get sepsis.
Sepsis is a medical emergency that occurs when the body triggers systemic inflammation to fend off an infection.
In rare cases, sepsis can result in septic shock, which happens when a person’s blood pressure drops low during a bout of sepsis.
How Long Can a Tooth Infection Go Untreated?
It’s always important to seek dental care when you suspect an infection.
An infection may not be severe at first, but it can quickly turn life-threatening if not addressed by a medical professional.
You could be at risk for an infection spreading to the body, sepsis, or septic shock.
If you treat your infected tooth with antibiotics early on, you should begin to notice an improvement in symptoms within a few days.
If your infection isn’t improving—or it’s getting worse—talk to a medical professional, who can help determine the proper course of treatment.
Signs and Symptoms of a Tooth Infection Spreading to The Body
If you seek treatment right away, you may reduce the risk of your tooth infection spreading to the body.
But if you feel as though your tooth infection has spread, it’s important to seek medical care right away.
A spreading infection may cause any of the following symptoms:
- Nausea and vomiting
- High fever
- Shortness of breath
- Drooping eyelids
- Pain in the tongue or mouth
- Swelling in the face or cheeks
- Severe, persistent headache
- Itchy or burning skin
- Double vision or loss of vision
- Dark urine
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Fast heart rate
- Increased breathing rate
When to Contact a Doctor
If you think that you have an infection of any kind, including a tooth infection, contact your healthcare provider or seek medical advice from a K doctor.
If you can’t get in at your normal dentist’s office, seek emergency dental treatment as soon as you can.
Infections can start off small and mild, but if left untreated, they can spread throughout the body. If the infection continues to spread, your immune system may get overwhelmed and trigger inflammation throughout the body, which is called sepsis.
If sepsis isn’t untreated, it can result in septic shock, a life-threatening condition that can develop when sepsis causes a person’s blood pressure to drop dangerously low.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have sepsis, and you need to go to the emergency room or call 911 right away:
- Severe pain
- A high fever
- Shivering or feeling cold
- Clammy, sweaty skin
- Shortness of breath
- High heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- General malaise
An untreated tooth infection can lead to several negative, even life-threatening outcomes, so it’s important to seek medical advice immediately if you think you have one.
How a dentist or doctor treats a tooth infection depends on the location and severity.
Here are some of the most common treatments for tooth infections:
If your dentist thinks they can save your affected tooth, they may perform a root canal.
During a root canal, the dentist removes diseased tissue and drains the abscess by drilling down into the tooth. After a root canal, the dentist seals the tooth and fills it with a rubber-like material; sometimes, the tooth may be further sealed with a crown to strengthen it.
If the infection is severe, a root canal may also include a tooth extraction. In this case, you may receive dental implants.
Dental abscess drainage
In a dental abscess drainage, a dentist cuts into the abscess to let the pus drain out, then washes it with saline (salt water) to clean it.
Sometimes, the dentist will also temporarily put a small rubber drain into the area to keep it open for drainage over time.
Antibiotics are medications that resolve bacterial infections by slowing or stopping the growth of germs.
If you have a dental infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic such as amoxicillin or cephalexin.
If you are prescribed antibiotics, make sure to follow your provider’s instructions and take the whole course, even if your pain starts to improve.
If a tooth infection spreads to other parts of your body and you develop sepsis, you will likely be admitted to the hospital for monitoring and treatment.
As with any other infection, sepsis requires antibiotics. But in this case, instead of taking an antibiotic orally, people with sepsis generally receive them through an IV.
At first, a doctor may treat sepsis with broad-spectrum antibiotics, which are effective against many different bacteria.
Once the physician is able to determine which specific bacteria are causing the infection, they may use more specific antibiotics that target the cause of the infection.
In some very serious cases, sepsis may also lead to surgery to remove infected tissue or procedures like dialysis to support failing organs.
How K Health Can Help
Did you know that you can get online dental prescriptions for tooth infections?
Download the K Health app to check your symptoms using our symptom checker and text with a doctor in minutes.
K Health’s board-certified, U.S.-based doctors can provide a treatment plan and, if required, a prescription to resolve your symptoms as soon as possible. Clinicians are available 24/7.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
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